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Yes, You Should Care About Ukraine
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Yes, You Should Care About Ukraine

And not just for idealistic reasons, either.

Before I dive into this newsletter, I don’t want anyone to misunderstand me. I do not support an American military response if Russia invades Ukraine, and I do not support making a military security guarantee to Ukraine outside of its potential future admission to NATO. I do believe the United States should take urgent action short of war to attempt to deter a Russian invasion of Ukraine. In the event of war, the United States should provide arms and other support to help Ukraine maintain as much of its territorial integrity and independence as possible. 

It’s important, however, to state why I believe America should attempt to aggressively deter Russia rather than merely sit back and meekly allow Putin to invade, dominate, and potentially annex significant parts of Ukrainian territory. And while part of that case is idealistic—rooted in concern for the human rights of Ukrainian citizens and their right to self-determination—part of it is also deeply pragmatic. It is bad for America if Ukraine falls.

An odd coalition of left-wing and right-wing American voices seems to disagree. On the right, Tucker Carlson has been particularly aggressive. In a series of segments on his top-rated cable news program, he has defended Russia’s interests in Ukraine, declared that NATO exists “primarily to torment Vladimir Putin,” and openly questioned why we’re not on “Russia’s side.”

In a recent monologue, Carlson repeated the themes of apologists for Russian and Soviet aggression for generations—Russia’s aggression is really defensive. “He just wants to keep his western borders secure.” 

Moving from right to left (though that can be a short trip these days), Glenn Greenwald yesterday tweeted this: 

Greenwald is a longtime Russia apologist and, like Carlson, has a huge platform. Their themes are similar—Russia has an intense national security interest in its “near abroad,” the nations on its frontier. NATO encroachment on that near abroad is justifiably alarming to Russia, and—after all—wouldn’t we be alarmed by similar hostile encroachment on our own borders?

Notably absent, of course, is any meaningful concern for Ukrainians, but that’s part of the entire point of “America first.” It’s our concern for the rights of others, the argument goes, that entangles us in expensive deployments abroad, and those expensive deployments abroad hurt American interests at home.

Of course, to question whether Americans would permit a “hostile” presence on our borders is to beg the question of what, exactly, is truly hostile about Ukraine. It’s a nation still newly freed from the Soviet empire, it possesses a fraction of Russia’s military power, and it has absolutely no designs on Russian territory. Despite Russian fears, it seeks membership in NATO as an act of self-preservation, not as a first step to conquest.

What’s the true hostility? Former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul puts it well:

To the extent that Ukraine is a threat, its democratic example is a threat to Russian authoritarianism. By contrast, a thriving democratic Mexico or Cuba isn’t remotely a threat to the United States. It would be a blessing, just as a thriving democratic Canada has been an asset to American peace and security for generations. 

In short, there is no moral equivalence in the way that Russia and America view their respective “near abroads.”

But let’s dive even deeper. Beyond the moral principles, there are three major reasons why Americans should be alarmed about Russian aggression. I’ll address each one in turn.

First, history teaches us that Russia’s desire to dominate the nations along its border extends when Russia’s border extends. Even a glance at maps of either the immense Russian Empire of the 19th and early 20th centuries or the Soviet Union at its height demonstrates that “Russian interests” and the Russian border have previously extended even to the west of Ukraine. Russia has in the past swallowed not just Ukraine but also Belarus, the Baltic states, and Poland. And with each move west, its territorial insecurity has extended with it. 

Put it another way. If Russia swallows Ukraine up to, say, the Dnieper River, that doesn’t render Russia “secure.” It just pushes its zone of insecurity and its area of desired domination that much farther west. It places more free nations under threat, and as those free nations fall under threat, it increases pressure on their treaty allies to make their security guarantees more concrete, including through forward deployments. And that ratchets up tensions all the more. 

Do you wonder why eastern European states were so keen to join NATO? They’ve known this pattern for centuries. They know that inclusion in NATO is now—and for the foreseeable future—a guarantor of peace and security within their borders. Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin put it well:

Second, the reintroduction of Great Power territorial aggression would once again destabilize the world order. Since the unspeakable horror of World War I, there has been a concerted effort to essentially outlaw wars of aggression as instruments of national policy. The Kellogg-Briand Pact (combined with the League of Nations) represented the first attempt to combine treaties and international cooperation to deter and prevent great power conflict.

But treaties are not self-enforcing, and the first attempt at creating global stability failed when Hitler recognized the war-weary weakness of (mainly) Britain and France. 

Article 2, Paragraph 4 of the U.N. Charter contains a similar aspiration to the Kellogg-Briand Pact. It states:

All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.  

Again, none of this is self-enforcing, but since World War II, the combination of international alliances and demonstrated military capability and military will has kept the great powers out of war, at least with each other. We’ve enjoyed a respite from eras of conquest. 

Russia’s Crimean land grab in 2014 represented a shot across the bow of European stability. A direct invasion of Ukraine, with all the horrors that would invariably occur (including a land war featuring all the capabilities of modern weapons) would represent the return of exactly the pattern of conquest that has—time and again—led to catastrophic war. 

Third, what starts in Europe rarely stays in Europe. Dating back to shortly after the founding of the nation, the United States has encountered the same pattern. Europe goes to war, we seek to remain at peace, yet ultimately we find ourselves in the fight. It’s often forgotten that our War of 1812 was a footnote to the Napoleonic Wars, a fight started in part because of British-imposed restrictions on American trade (designed to block trade with Napoleon’s France) and British impressment of American sailors to help meet the Royal Navy’s desperate manpower needs.

And don’t forget World War I, when Wilson ran his reelection campaign boasting that he’d “kept us out of war.” By 1917, we were sending hundreds of thousands of troops “over there.” In 1918, the U.S. Army fought the largest land battle in its history, committing more than a million troops to the Meuse-Argonne offensive and suffering almost 150,000 casualties, including 26,000 men killed in action. 

We don’t need to rehash the history of the Second World War, but suffice to say that the unspeakable horror of the conflict taught our nation a cardinal lesson—we should use our might to prevent war, not end war. And so once we arrived back in Europe, we’ve never left, and great power peace has prevailed. 

We cannot be so arrogant as to presume that we can manage or limit open warfare between Russia and Ukraine. The re-introduction of large-scale land war in Europe can have unpredictable and destabilizing consequences. Moreover, as Michael Schuman notes in The Atlantic, Chinese eyes are fixed on the Ukrainian border:

China’s Xi Jinping, too, has a geopolitical grievance in his neighborhood—in his case over Taiwan, the microchip-rich island that Beijing insists is and always should be part of China. Like Putin, who is eager to bring Ukraine back under Moscow’s control, Xi worries that a former chunk of his country’s empire is growing closer with the United States and its allies. How Xi interprets (or worse, misinterprets) the outcome of the Ukraine standoff could influence whether and how China tries to reunify with Taiwan, and thus has implications for the security and stability of East Asia.

I agree with his conclusion: “What can be said with greater certainty is that Ukraine and Taiwan both show how easily U.S. weakness—or even the mere perception of weakness—could unravel the strained networks and alliances that support the American world order and usher in a new era of global conflict and instability.”

Decades of Pax Americana—the peace secured by an American nation that decided not to retreat to its borders after World War II—has been good for America and for the world. We’ve been spared from the escalating horrors of global combat. An era of free trade combined with a world that enjoys largely secure borders has helped lower global poverty to a degree never before seen in human history. 

At the same time, the United States has thrived. We remain what we were when the peace agreement was signed on the deck of the USS Missouri, the most powerful and prosperous nation in the world. Deterring Russian aggression isn’t “merely” a moral stand in support of a free people against authoritarian aggression, it’s a pragmatic move that preserves the international order that has helped keep America, peaceful, powerful, and free.

One last thing …

No introduction necessary. Just look at this and behold the wonder of Ja Morant:

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.